The main concern here will be to clarify what it means for us to be moral equals (and thus what it means for us not to be so). Specifically, I want to address two questions about the nature and significance of basic moral equality. First, what is the difference between what I shall call epiphenomenal moral equality and non-epiphenomenal moral equality? This distinction is often ignored, or overlooked, and this is unfortunate because it hides from view a decision that many will seem a dilemma. If, in affirming the moral equality of all persons, we mean the non-epiphenomenal kind, moral equality is quite controversial. But if we mean the epiphenomenal kind, moral equality is derivative, i.e., it is simply a summation of the moral significance of other morally relevant factors—suggesting that the notion of moral equality does not play the role of moral bedrock generally ascribed to it. Since moral equality in this sense is not moral equality in the sense that is most crucial to philosophical disagreements about basic moral equality, I shall have less to say about this notion than about non-epiphenomenal moral equality. Second, what are the close alternatives to moral equality? In response to this question, I defend the deflationary view that several ways of denying that all persons are moral equals leave most of our other moral beliefs largely unaffected, in terms of their justification. This casts further doubt on the importance assumption in addition to that induced by my first question. Ultimately, these deflationary implications should be welcomed—even by typical egalitarian assumers and defenders of the importance assumption—because it means that their cherished assumed implications of basic moral equality have a greater robustness, i.e., they could be justified even in the absence of basic moral equality.
Section 2 addresses the first question. Section 3 presents a general challenge to the idea that non-epiphenomenal moral status has across-the-board moral significance. Section 4 explores two non-egalitarian ideas of moral status. I suggest that these have moral implications for a wide range of first-order normative issues, and that these implications do not differ in any important respects from the implications normally taken to follow from non-epiphenomenal moral equality. Section 5 concludes.
Larry Alexander & Steven D. Smith
"What Is It For Us To Be Moral Equals? And Does It Matter Much If We're Not?,"
The Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues: Vol. 23:
2, Article 7.
Available at: https://digital.sandiego.edu/jcli/vol23/iss2/7